GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — Detective James Vakertzis returns to the room he spent so much time in last year - the weight room at the Grand Rapids Police Department. Deep in the bowels of the department's headquarters, this is where Vakertzis has been putting in some serious work.
When he's not on the job, the detective is a father and competitive powerlifter. In 2019 he competed a the World Police and Fire Games in China where he won a silver medal. The 2022 games in The Netherlands was a shot at redemption for Vakertzis.
"For me, it was like okay, in China, I went over there. I won the silver. Got beat. Then I'm coming back here and with all the support and everyone that was behind me. I'm going to win a gold just so I can come back here and tell everyone that hey, we did it," Vakertzis said.
He uses the word we because competing in the games is a Herculean effort that carries even more weight than this Herculean man can carry. He's got a trainer and a nutritionist making sure he's on the right track. His family and friends, of course, are giving him support. Even perfect strangers have let Vakertzis know they're rooting for him.
"People would walk up to me. I don't even know who these people are. I'm in uniform. And they're like 'Hey, you're that guy that's going to The Netherlands," he said.
It's because of that support that Vakertzis made it very clear before he left that he wanted to win a gold medal to honor everyone in West Michigan. And there's one person in particular who was hoping to honor even more.
In September 2021, not long after Vakertzis began training for the Rotterdam games, his daughter Sophia was killed in a car accident. He was overcome with grief and considered not competing in The Netherlands. But then he remembered how much it meant to Sophia to see him compete. In March 2022, he told 13 ON YOUR SIDE that's what made him decide to go after all.
When the time finally came to go, Vakertzis felt jet-lagged after a trans-Atlantic flight and a train ride across the country. But he knew what he had to do.
"Everyone always asks if you get butterflies and you kind of always do, but the minute you walk through the door, it's game time," he said.
"I like to tell people it's six months to eight months worth of training for six lifts. Three bench and three deadlifts to make it."
Two hours after going through the rules, Vakertzis finally got his turn. He benched 403 pounds and deadlifted 590. He missed on a 627-pound deadlift, which would've given him a personal record. But it was good enough to earn him a gold medal.
"It was really surreal. I was very, very happy. I felt blessed. A lot of it had dealt with my daughter who had passed away. So it was very much of a very loving moment that my family was there. They knew and I knew that we did it," Vakertzis said.
Though Sophia could not be with Detective Vakertzis in person, he believes she was with him in spirit and that she'd be excited to share in his accomplishment.
"She'd probably brag more about it than I would. It was very much a healing process for me," he said.
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